Moral evolution


Our psychological makeup has over hundreds of thousands of years been molded to promote mutual solidarity. Any breach of loyalty caused the indefinite unease we call pangs of conscience. All latter-day ethical superstructures are dependent on this inborn propensity which unfortunately can be repressed, but which may also be refined in a variety of directions. Our culturally conditioned conscience is an invaluable resource, a measure of the available moral capital.

Group selection

Humans have never been altruistic exemplars. Far from it. But eventually the self-interest of our ancestors was adequately coordinated to serve the common good. The crucial factor is strong reciprocity, which Robert Trivers aptly calls moral aggression. An elementary sense of justice emerged, and group members were conditioned to react strongly towards deceit and cheating, even at some cost to themselves. Competition was tempered by cooperation, self-esteem by team spirit. Particularly among young men, collaboration developed into comradeship that shows no mercy to defectors.

Since the beginnings of language, truthful speech has certainly facilitated cooperation and imparted selective advantage at the group level. Shrewd lying may, on the other hand, improve individual fitness by providing a free ride. A bad conscience is the evolutionary safeguard against such perfidious behaviour. Fortunately, we seem to possess an inborn, albeit weak respect for truth, and a small tightly-knit community can easily identify and castigate its free riders. Conversely, such defectors thrive in large, anonymous societies; the requisite minimum of morality increases with the size of the relevant social grouping.

Single mothers supported by the public purse have become the hallmark of modern morality. Male deceit receives its reward; no trouble, no burdens but the genes are propagated at the taxpayer’s expense. Disregarding other drawbacks we can conclude that moral evolution goes into reverse gear when free-riders are favored.

In the anthology, Moral Sentiments and Material Interests (2005), Herbert Gintis et al. stress the point that strong reciprocity is a fundamental precondition for extended human plus-sum play. The key resource is our inclination to react against breaching the rules of the game. Foul and false play must lead to social sanctions; otherwise the plus-sum game will collapse. Moral percipience and self-control calls for continual fine-tuning by feedback from the societal environment. To moralize is thus a civic duty – a bad conscience is our most precious asset.

Political integration

Despite desperate efforts, functional nation states are thin on the ground south of the Sahara − tribal identity still dominates. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia shows that not even the total control of the state apparatus over several generations can create a genuine national identity. Nation building, not to speak of greater entities, requires moral evolution − a broadening, deepening and intensification of human togetherness.

Most of the eloquence squandered on universal human solidarity must be heavily discounted. Notwithstanding, a moral evolution is discernible in the longer perspective. It manifests itself not only in nation-building but, despite aberrations, also in the increasing empathy for the suffering of human beings (and animals).

Moral evolution during the last centuries is a Euro-American phenomenon. Corresponding developments did not take place on other continents. Even though the example of the Occident left some traces, nothing points to the imminence of a comparable societal change. Neither can colonialism be blamed for cutting short such a process − rather the other way round. Haiti, which liberated itself from France in 1804, bears sad evidence.

A lot hangs on the success of the European Union and the arrival of a new, strong and responsible actor on the world scene. The globalization of trade and finance is an encouraging signal of worldwide cooperation in the making, but we are in for a long wait before our moral evolution creates the preconditions for a political analogue.

A global community?

The global impact of Western culture stems from a multi-facetted pluralism which may superficially resemble value-neutralism. A good message nevertheless pervades the whole game. The interpretation of right and wrong is not left in the hands of professional sages but is the personal responsibility and daily task of the progress dynamos, the collective conscience of the cultural coalition. Despite the absence of explicit ends, our culture is a hermeneutic whole which depends on general adherence to sanctifying means, if it is to yield a rich return. The main determinant is the passion to improve, enhance and enrich the world. I call it meta-capitalism, the morality of wealth.

Globalization has gathered all significant nations into a gigantic plus-sum game, contributing to peaceful relations. At all times there are relative winners and losers but the great majority has shared in the increased prosperity. All the same, the prevailing differences in living standards are no longer taken for granted but are slowly transforming into glaring injustices. We are far from a working global order but we are feeling the pangs of an emerging global conscience.